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Reviewed by:
  • Memory's Daughters: The Material Culture of Remembrance in Eighteenth-Century America
  • Sarah Purcell (bio)
Memory's Daughters: The Material Culture of Remembrance in Eighteenth-Century America. By Susan Stabile. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004. Pp. xiii, 284. Illustrations. Cloth, $34.95.)

Susan Stabile opens her book on a prominent group of Philadelphia women's practices of writing and remembering with an epigraph from Canto 3 of Byron's Don Juan: "But words are things, and a small drop of ink/Falling like dew upon a thought" (v). Much like the women she discusses, Stabile chose her epigraph carefully, for her insightful book seeks to treat words as "things" in order to unite the study of social and cultural history, literature, material culture, the history of the body, and the history of the book. Stabile uses diverse interdisciplinary methods to create a "poetics of female memory" to explain how her subjects created personal and collective memories in print and in practice in the latter part of the eighteenth century (12). In a study of the literary commonplace books exchanged by Elizabeth Fergusson, Hannah Griffitts, Deborah Logan, Annis Stockton, and Susanna Wright, she explores a whole host of ideas about memory, death, emotion, and philosophy, connecting them to material practices and conventions of architecture, mourning, penmanship, medicine, and collecting.

Commonplace books, as Stabile argues, functioned as archives that were informally "published" by being exchanged, at the same time as they "could be constantly revised, supplemented, annotated, and indexed" (13). She relates the act of writing in the commonplace books to women's other "modes of collecting" in the "domestic arts of shellwork, penmanship, souvenir collecting, and mourning" in order to analyze a whole web of female memory created in and around the home (13). Stabile divides the book into halves, each consisting of two chapters. Part One, "Memory," relates the ways in which women's personal memories were inscribed in their houses, in their shellwork handicrafts, and in the daily practice of writing. Part Two, "Collective Reminiscence," relates personal memory to social relationships as it analyzes women's collections and their mourning and memorial practices.

Although historically minded, Stabile is a literary scholar whose work relies on literary theory to a degree that will be uncomfortable for some historians, and tantalizing to others. She ranges loosely from topic to topic across the book, openly announcing in her introduction that she [End Page 199] "abandons chronology and mimics the way remembrance actually works . . . personal memory is associative, recursive, and utterly incomplete" (13–14). Any historian looking for a solid analysis of the social position of these women and their relationship to one another or of the exact causes and effects of women's memory practices will be disappointed. Stabile also sternly refuses to relate her findings to the burgeoning historiography on public memory, claiming explicitly that women's private memory did not fit into the pattern of collective memory that helped to create national identity during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. She does a beautiful job of discussing how her subjects, particularly Deborah Logan, who emerges as the book's most vivid and well-developed character, must have understood the process of memory. Stabile also shows how women acted upon advice from a wide variety of prescriptive literature on topics as diverse as grooming, medicine, penmanship, posture, and gardening. Despite some drawbacks of such a far-ranging analytical method, Stabile covers a diverse set of topics in some very concrete and productive ways, and careful reading will be rewarded.

Stabile is very deliberate, almost self-conscious at times, about her own use of language in the book, and readers must pay precise attention to her sometimes multiple meanings to get the most out of the ideas she puts forth. For example, Stabile argues that women in eighteenth-century Philadelphia understood memory primarily through the ancient Greek myth of Mnemosyne, who recorded perceptions, sensations, and ideas as memories in wax. Sometimes Stabile uses the term mnemonic to invoke this connection between internal and external sensations, such as when she argues that the art of creating shellwork houses related physical architecture to female "memory and intellect" (22). At other...


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pp. 199-201
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